A joke often heard in the corridors of power is that files had to travel from ‘Pillai to Pillai’ in the UPA government and now things get settled much faster—between Misra and Mishra. There may not have been too many ‘Pillais’ in Manmohan Singh’s government, but there was surely a predominance of Malayali officers, including many from the Kerala cadre. And Misra and Mishra, or ‘Bade’ Misra and ‘Chhote’ Mishra, are PM Narendra Modi’s principal secretary Nripendra Misra and additional principal secretary P.K. Mishra. Along with national security adviser Ajit Doval, they form the fulcrum of Modi’s PMO, and all three have been given the status of cabinet ministers, making them senior to the MoS in the PMO, Jitendra Singh, in the table of precedence. Earlier, when their position was equivalent to that of an MoS, protocol allowed a cabinet minister to call Mishra to his office to discuss matters of transfers, postings and appointments. Not anymore.
“Power was centralised in the PMO even during Modi’s first term, but this PMO will wield even more power as cabinet rank gives these bureaucrats more authority,” says a senior IAS officer. “The PM has enough confidence in them to give them the authority to dictate terms by enhancing their status in the hierarchy.” According to this officer, this was also necessitated after the PM’s trusted diplomat S. Jaishankar, a 1977 batch IFS officer, was made external affairs minister. “The three PMO officers are senior to him in the civil services and the PM wanted to avoid a situation where they had to report to their junior,” he explains.
A former bureaucrat says Modi, since his days as Gujarat CM, has always believed in a more centralised, close-knit bureaucracy he can bank on to deliver results. “For his first term, Modi could say he had to deal with the mess left behind by the UPA, but no longer. The next five years have to be bigger than the previous five in terms of outcomes,” he adds.
The task of the government is cut out: build on and expand the PM’s pet projects and social schemes such as Ujjwala, Awas Yojana and Ayushman Bharat; turnaround the economy with more jobs, double farm incomes, and reforms for ease of business; and continue with “offensive defence” as foreign policy vis-à-vis the neighbourhood. The playbook heavily relies on bureaucracy to deliver results, and the PM has his trusted team of bureaucrats. “As the first sitting CM to become PM, Modiji brought many of his bureaucrats from Gujarat,” says a Gujarat BJP leader. “He preferred those who understood his way of functioning and his expectations. The familiarity has made him continue with many of them.”
Mishra was Modi’s principal secretary in the CM’s office. As was Girish Chandra Murmu, who is now secretary in the department of expenditure, and is part of Modi’s trusted close-knit team working on the crucial budget. Others in the team include finance secretary Subhash Chandra Garg, revenue secretary Ajay Bhushan Pandey and department of investment and public asset management (DIPAM) secretary Atanu Chakraborty, also from the Gujarat cadre.
The previous finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia, one of the few who were aware of Modi’s demonetisation decision, was also from the Gujarat cadre and has been appointed chairman of Bank of Baroda after retirement. Arvind Kumar Sharma, once known as the Vibrant Gujarat man for his role in Modi’s signature campaign to attract investment, is another powerful Gujarat-cadre officer in the PMO. Also known as AK, he has worked with Modi since 2001 and, as additional secretary in charge of infrastructure, now handles Pragati, the PM’s monthly interaction with state chief secretaries to review the progress of centre-state projects. Sharma’s private secretary Rajeev Topno is also a Gujarat officer.
Modi depends on bureaucracy as much as he disdains it. On moving to Delhi, claim BJP leaders, Modi was wary of the “Lutyens-type” arrogant bureaucrats, who he believed were more interested in networking and throwing their weight around. “He still holds that view to a large extent and, hence, prefers a certain type of officers— ‘doers’ who are loyal, unquestioning and honest, but shun publicity to stay under the radar. Modi keeps an eye on the ministers through those babus who win his trust,” says the Gujarat BJP leader.
There is a joke that if someone’s name starts doing the rounds for a particular job, he invariably doesn’t get it. Not finding enough bureaucrats whom the PM can trust to deliver the results he wants, the government has decided to bring in around 400 domain experts through lateral entry on posts traditionally filled by IAS officers. Former IAS officer K.J. Alphons, who was inducted as MoS for culture and tourism in Modi’s first term, believes it is “in a sense a good idea” as it will make bureaucracy more competitive and pose a challenge to IAS officers.
“If the government needs experts even after selecting the 100 best from 1.5 million, then there is something flawed about the system,” says Alphons. “Why can’t the UPSC devise a system to select 100 officers who can work, who are not arrogant and have a spine? It is a pity that many IAS officers, who have the best job in the world, incredible power and opportunity to work for the people, fritter it away with their attitude. As 1.5 million people take the civil services exam and 100 get through to the IAS, from the moment they cross the gates of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussorie for their training, they carry a certain arrogance around them. That needs to change. Modi is creating infrastructure for the poor, which needs a hundred things to be done simultaneously. He needs the vast monitoring system to ensure there are no slippages and things get done.”
Nripendra Misra, 74
Principal secretary to the PM
1967-batch UP-cadre IAS
The PM’s troubleshooter, he is on top of contentious issues like Dalit violence, reservations for the economically backward and jobs data. The PMO’s pointsman for all ministries, he is responsible for policy decisions. He lays down the roadmap for bureaucrats and keeps up the pressure on timelines of projects.
Ajit Doval, 74
National security adviser
1968-batch Kerala-cadre IPS
He is credited for the muscular approach to national security that also pervades Modi government’s foreign policy. The Uri surgical strike across the LoC and the Balakot air attack that found resonance with voters in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections are a brainchild of Doval. Straddling security, intelligence, defence and diplomacy, Doval is now working on a national security blueprint.
Pramod K. Mishra, 70
Additional principal secretary to the PM
1972-batch Gujarat-cadre IAS
Misra enjoys complete trust of the PM, having served as his principal secretary when Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat. In the PMO, he is in charge of top-level postings and transfers in the government and recently nudged the finance ministry to do a clean-up—several senior officers of the Central Board of Indirect Taxes and Customs were compulsorily retired.
Subhash C. Garg, 58
1983-batch Rajasthan- cadre IAS
At a time when the economy needs a booster dose, Modi has put his trust in Garg, considered one of the better number-crunchers. Given the unenviable task of reviving the economy and creating jobs, Garg has to draw a roadmap for reforms to promote ease of doing business and economic growth. He is known to have a good equation with the RBI and SEBI.
Girish Chandra Murmu, 59
Secretary, department of expenditure
1985-batch Gujarat-cadre IAS
Hailing from Sundargarh in Odisha, the low-key but shrewd bureaucrat has been the go-to man for Prime Minister Modi as well as Amit Shah. Murmu has also served as principal secretary in Modi’s CMO in Gujarat. Brought to Delhi soon after Modi became the PM in 2014, he was one of the trusted few tasked with reviving the economy.
Shaktikanta Das, 62
1980-batch Tamil Nadu-cadre IAS
As revenue secretary, he earned Modi’s trust with his GST push. As RBI governor, he is in tune with the government’s expectations on NPAs, the insolvency and bankruptcy code, and domestic investments. With his consultative approach, the RBI and finance ministry are on the same page. Lenders too have been warming up to him as he hears out industry concerns.
Vijay Keshav Gokhale, 60
1981-batch IFS officer
Known for functioning under the radar, Gokhale has worked in China as well as Taiwan. His understated but firm negotiating skills impressed Modi and the security establishment.As ambassador to China, he worked on resolving the Doklam stand-off in coordination with Doval and then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar. He now has to prioritise the neighbourhood and reset relations with China.